A Q and A with U.K. Members on the Importance of Density to the Future of Cities

"Density is going to require a collaboration of skills, a collection of skill sets. We have to ensure that we’re looking at this thing holistically and that, ultimately, we’re talking about people rather than buildings."

Andy Martin, ULI U.K.

ULI’s recently released report, Density: Drivers, Dividends, and Debates, adds critical insights to the question of how cities should grow in a way that accommodates both current residents and future population. Cowritten by ULI Senior Resident Fellow Greg Clark and Emily Moir of The Business of Cities, a consulting group based in the United Kingdom, the report is based on interviews with and surveys of nearly 200 ULI members who are land use professionals with expertise in urban planning and design, real estate development, and capital markets.

The report examines the housing and livability challenges posed by the rapid urbanization that is occurring around the world, concluding that the sprawling, low-density development that was so pervasive in the 20th century is too resource-intensive and inefficient to accommodate the realities of city building for the 21st century.

It offers density as a solution for sustainable growth, but analyzes the issue from all sides: showing examples of good vs. bad density, identifying the reasons people and businesses are moving back into cities, and debunking myths about density that have made certain populations slow to embrace it. Density is not a one-size-fits all solution, and needs to be customized to each city, the report maintains.

“Densification may be an obvious answer, but how to deliver successful densification is not so obvious and is one of the most important topics of this urban decade,” says Rosemary Feenan, director of global research, JLL, and chair of ULI Europe’s policy and practice committee, in an interview excerpt.

Rosemary Feenan, ULI Europe Policy and Practice Chair
Rosemary Feenan, ULI Europe Policy and Practice Chair

Among members who were surveyed, there seems to be little doubt that building cities more compactly and efficiently is the path forward. Indeed, 89 percent of those surveyed felt that the issue of density has become critical during the past five years, according to the report. The report will be the first phase in larger initiative, which will also look at how density can help cities adapt to population fluctuations, and at investment strategies that can support density.

ULI Trustees Michael Spies, senior managing director, Europe and India, Tishman Speyer; and Andy Martin, senior partner, Strutt and Parker, were among the members interviewed and surveyed for the report. ULI Connect asked each to expand on certain issues the report raises. Their responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.

The report says that building denser cities can accomplish several goals at once: absorb migration and natural population growth, effectively manage natural and financial resources through the sharing economy, and close the opportunity gap by placing people of various incomes and backgrounds in close proximity. What steps need to be taken to ensure that density fulfills its promise?

Michael Spies
Michael Spies

Michael Spies: There needs to be a firm vision toward producing density with a 100- or 200-year-perspective in mind. The key questions are how will cities grow and how best do we accommodate all those who aren’t already here in a way that is least taxing and most efficient from a resource and quality-of-life perspective?

Many existing cities have pockets without any of those things in mind and are driven by a different set of priorities. Historical preservation, for example, and the need to preserve views of certain landmarks, like St. Paul’s Cathedral here in London. This is a case where a current priority is not reflecting the needs of future generations.

Transportation, technology, and the shared spaces will be keys to density’s success. A dense city has a mix of living and working spaces that are accessible to transportation. Technology will create more options in terms of where work can be accomplished and how services are delivered. What this leads to is more flexible ways of working and living, and that’s what is in the process of happening now.

Andy Martin: One has to accept that there is a problem, and that is that more people want

Andy Martin
Andy Martin

to live in cities than outside cities. Whatever we think other options will be, the populace is saying, “We want to be in cities.” You could do it via sprawl and create all sorts of costly infrastructure. Density is the key to this debate of how you accommodate growth. If we accept the fact that density is something we’ll have to grapple with, then we have to develop the means to get people to understand that it’s not all bad.

Are the real estate and land use industries prepared to build the sorts of spaces, whether that is residential, commercial, retail, and open spaces, that will allow cities to densify? Does the industry need new expertise, approaches, or product types that serve the dense city well?

 MS: The products are there, and through a combination of technology and proper planning, these solutions can work well, and the market will develop around them. We’re not totally there yet, since this debate is all very current. Within the industry, there are groups that have the capabilities it takes, but it’s going to require collaboration between government and industry.

Currently, long-term vision doesn’t always match up with political realities. It’s going to require strong and informed leadership, and the depoliticization of the allocation of transportation resources. If you take a city that has 100,000 people today, and that city will have 150,000 in the future, the decisions have to be made to accommodate those people. The long-term implications of not densifying are unacceptable, and if people understood and accepted that, they would think differently about it.

AM: Density is going to require a collaboration of skills, a collection of skill sets. We have to ensure that we’re looking at this thing holistically and that, ultimately, we’re talking about people rather than buildings. Understanding social or behavioral inputs, even the anthropological or cognitive response to our environment, will become necessary to density’s success so as not to repeat the problems [like social isolation or concentrations of poverty] we’ve had in the past. It’s going to require us to understand how human beings interact with open spaces and closed spaces.

Most importantly, you have to have a plan and guidance from public policy. It’s not just market forces that are going to achieve density, but cities that decide that they want density and how to do it right.

It seems that consumers still need to be educated on the virtues of living in smaller, more efficient spaces that density will require. How do we make density appealing to people who still equate quality of life with detached, single-family homes?

MS: This may be a generational thing, because people are already preferring this way of living. Student housing, with private bedrooms and bathrooms, but shared kitchen and communal spaces, is the most prevalent of what’s coming for other demographic groups. For families, what if you have young kids and need more space, but don’t want to move to the suburbs? If more alternatives existed, they would be preferred by Millennials and others with young families.  

In the West, we’ve had the luxury of having much more space that what people are used to in the developing world. Our new way of living is not going to be the suburban U.S. model. If you can get ahead of all of that, and plan for it, it doesn’t have to have a brutal outcome. It (density) can be an improved solution achieved by taking advantage of what’s available.

 AM: We all grew up with this idea that every building had to have a completely different function. We’re now getting used to mixed-use formats. I think the idea of creating places is challenging the idea of having single uses, meaning that you actually incorporate different functions on different floors in a high-rise building. One reason certain high-rise buildings failed in the past is that everything that was not in your home would be at ground level. But what if you put a play space or a garden into the building? Breaking up functions and mixing uses will make that building, and the people living in it, more successful.

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